By Lucy McDaid
At the start of 2017, Sussex University’s Students’ Union announced their new gender inclusive policy. The policy requests that individuals state their gender pronoun at the start of any activity in the union, whilst the use of gender neutral vocabulary such as ‘them’ and ‘they’ must be used in all other circumstances where gender identities have not been confirmed. The union has essentially requested to dismiss the use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ wherever possible. According to The Independent, this comes as a result of ‘students’ requests to help prevent transgender discrimination on campus.’ The union is supposedly ‘one of the first in the country to promote the use of gender-neutral language’ but a number of other universities are said to be considering similar action too. The policy extends to all areas of student media and the entire population of staff and students that use the union. One cannot help but think though, is this just another example of political correctness taken too far?
Firstly, transphobia is unacceptable and Sussex University’s attention to gender inclusivity is commendable. No human being should be made to feel inferior, and this applies to every form of discrimination that exists today. In spite of the recognition that the union deserves though, no decision is made without its controversy. Some will disagree with the decision to request gender neutral pronouns, and some will particularly disagree with the decision to determine the gender identity of each individual at the start of a meeting. It must be said that even some people who wholeheartedly believe in the prevention of gender discrimination will likewise agree with this controversial opinion.
The ruling encourages division instead of inclusivity and will most definitely cause unnecessary discomfort and pressure. A new pronoun – or at least a revision of gender pronouns – is undeniably essential for the absolute equality of gender non-binary peoples, however this new identification process is assumptive and insensitive. It invites far too many queries and concerns for it ever to be wholly effective, and aims to adapt a language that is societally ingrained. As a society, we want to remove gender discrimination, and this update of policy will cause controversy and division, potentially bringing those who discriminate to the forefront.
The official website for Sussex University students explains that the policy intends to ‘promote the inclusion of non-binary individuals and transgender people’ and to ‘avoid making assumptions about anyone’s gender identity.’ The explanation concludes with a ‘glossary of basic terms’, which one cannot help but think is potentially quite isolating for the people it directs attention to. Time should be spent educating people and encouraging gender inclusivity and equality for all. In an ideal world, policies would not need to be put in place to ensure that people are respectful and sensitive to others.
Whilst there is no doubt that this policy has been introduced with the best intentions, it is difficult not to read without thinking about the other assumptions that are often made about identities. This excludes – and possibly even underestimates – the other types of discrimination that have equally long-lasting effects on individuals. Just like someone with mental health issues or learning difficulties may not want to assert these at the start of a meeting, trans individuals may not feel comfortable being expected to do so either, especially if they are at a difficult stage in their journey. The policy may consequentially force people to feel pressured into lying about their gender identity, causing a mental distress that nobody needs, and not to mention a complete contradiction of purpose. This opinion is admittedly formed by someone perhaps too naïve to comment, however every individual should feel comfortable to correct others or assert their gender identity confidently. This type of action should not become a policy, and is at risk of being labelled authoritarian. Another issue is that, no matter how discriminatory one may perceive the use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ to be, it is unfortunately not possible to immediately dismiss their usage from everyday language when most people use them without discriminatory intent. People will most likely continue to harmlessly use them and are now potentially at risk of expulsion if they do.
We are at great risk of reaching a stage in society where the fear of political correctness prevents people from freely communicating. Instead of forcing people to adhere to policy, we should continue to encourage equality and support through education and awareness. Subjects such as gender and sexuality should be discussed without needing a university policy to ensure their consideration.